Tajik cinema after disintegration of USSR: Identity search, trends and perspectives

Sharofat Arabova

Postgraduate student of  Department of History of Art of Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography by name of A. Donish of Academy of Sciences of Republic of Tajikistan.

Cinema of every country has its unique image that deeply rooted in certain irreproducible culture. By definition of identity of cinema we will imply the overall film image that takes form under influences of policy and main ideological line, social condition, economic issues related to film production and to film market, certain artistic trends and aesthetic influences of one particular filmmaker. While looking at films one can’t ignore the mentioned issues, because cinema is created on the cross lines of many related fields, like a pattern that is woven with some lines more bold and prominent, and some – thin, delicate and almost invisible that always lies under the top layer. It relates not only towards a subtext of the film, but also the context the film was made in.

Cinema of every country of Central Asia after the disintegration of USSR experiences difficulties and trying to overcome them and their nowadays success depends on how much it was developed in Soviet period, what was the previous level of excellence and how many filmmakers started their carrier during Perestroika and thus represent the old generation of film masters, creating the basis for cinema of new states. Some of them, graduated from central VGIK (State All-Union Film Institute), continue to work and make films that get appreciation at international film festivals today. New filmmakers that started their carrier after 2000 are either in search of a professional film education or self-taught people of natural gifts working independently.

Faced with serious social, economical and political problems, the arts are not the top priority of most of these new governments. Today creative filmmakers of the autonomous Central Asian countries are looking towards the West for finances and recognition. The biggest drawback to the development of the national cinemas, however, is the lack of money. As the eminent Kyrgyz writer and philosopher Chingiz Aitmatov aptly stresses, “The ideological censorship of the Soviet Union is now replaced with the censorship through money which is the reason behind the domination of the Western culture” [1].

Cinema itself as a global medium in the contemporary world has drawn towards attribution to bigger dimensioned spaces. Its nature is collective, and soviet filmmakers were already habituated to shift from one film studio of Soviet Republic to another, or when the screenplay written, for example, on a Baltic film studio was forwarded to Central Asian film studio for a shoot: the characters were getting local names and the cultural flavor was added, but the essential structure and the storyline remained the same.  Representatives of culture of every Soviet Republic would be called as ‘Soviet filmmaker’, ‘Soviet director’, ‘Soviet actress’ etc. in most of the books, encyclopedias, magazines and journals related to cinema. Perhaps due to our previous experience of being cells of national cinemas of Soviet Republics within a bigger organism of Soviet cinema, Central Asian filmmakers while working with foreign coproduction can’t refer their cinema neither to their national country nor only to a coproduced country, creating a new category of films we can call ‘Eurasian’.

One of the good examples of filmmakers of Tajik origin working abroad is Bakhtiyar Khudoijnazarov.  His second feature film ‘Kosh ba Kosh’ was awarded by a Silver Lion on Venice Film Festival in 1993.  Set against the backdrop of a civil war in Tajikistan it’s a surreal tale about two young people, who are careless of war, but once falling in love they realize their fear and responsibility for each other. The director divides the cinematic space into two parts – ‘City of God’ and ‘Earthly City’ where the war rages and only an old cableway is the transition that people use to come down to Earth. The harsh reality wakes the dreaming lovers up. This film of Bakhtiyar Khudoijnazarov continues achievements found in his debut film called ‘Bratan’ (‘Bro’) in 1991. Both of his early films have tendency to a constructed stylized world that was realized the most later on in his ‘Luna Papa’ (‘Moon Papa’, 1999) in a genre of magical realism.

‘My work can’t be classified as Tajik cinema. It is my film, a film for my friends, my roots, my parents who live in Tajikistan. My work is not first about Tadjikistan, but about Central Asia. I want to take up themes that deal with Europe, Asia, Central Asia…[2]. I’m Eurasian. I would have liked to live in Soviet Union but what to do, it no longer exists’ [3]. Bakhtier Khudoynazarov as a Russian filmmaker had premiered his new film ‘Waiting for the sea’ (being a part of his so called ‘Eurasian trilogy’) at VII Roman Film Festival.  The film is a coproduction between Ukraine, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia and Kazakhstan. But the reviewer of ‘Hollywood reporter’ called ‘Waiting for the sea’ somehow a big budget Tajikistan fable [4]. The film was dedicated to Aral Sea problem and it was shot in Mangistau area of Kazakhstan.  ‘This part of Kazakhstan is special to me. The entire Central Asia intertwines here’, – says Khudoynazarov [5].

The scope for film shootings exists within Tajikistan itself. The film city was going to be built in the north of Tajikistan in the ancient city of Isfara during Soviet time. Renowned Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky was going to shoot his legendary film ‘Stalker’ in Isfara, but due to earthquake that happened there in 1977 they had to search for a new location.  The mentioned film ‘Luna Papa’ was also shot in Isfara. The reason why the filmmakers use opportunities to shoot outside of the country when the story is set in Tajikistan is due to weak material-technical basis, absence of professional technicians who can be hired along with equipment. Otherwise the equipment and stuff for a shoot has to get transported to Tajikistan that becomes costly.  The majority of shoots supposed to be set in Afghanistan or Tajikistan is shot in Kazakhstan where filmmakers get more opportunities and have choice.

Most of the scholars divide Tajik cinema of Post-Soviet period into two types: Tajik cinema that produced and shot within the country and the cinema in ‘emigration’ produced abroad and sometimes shot in Tajikistan. Search of Tajik identity can be traced in a question regarding belonging of cinema ‘in emigration’ produced by foreign producers and shot by foreign professionals to Tajik culture. There are a lot of professionals from all around Soviet Union used to participate in making of Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz films and that question wasn’t highlighted because everyone was making a Soviet film. One can’t deny excellent examples of national cinema created at that time in Turkmenfilm, Kyrgysfilm, Georgiafilm, Armenfilm and others. But the situation had changes and attention is drawn on self-determination of formed states.  The cinema of contemporary world is mostly transnational and when it’s limited by much narrowed geopolitical boarders it leads to a lot of confusions. Thus, contemporary filmmakers working in foreign lands can be called, for example, as French (Djamshed Usmonov), Russian filmmakers (Bakhtiyar Khudoijnazarov) of Tajik origin.

The reason of present situation the Tajik cinema is in now is seen by us in absence of strong core created in Soviet period. There were 2-3 generations of Tajik filmmakers graduated in 1930-1940-th, 1960-1970-th and 1980-th from central filmschools like main VGIK training and Higher Postgraduate 2 years course also in VGIK.  The second wave of filmmakers presented such filmmakers like Marat Aripov, Davlat Khudonazarov, Mayram Yusupova, Baqo Sadikov, Yunus Yusupov, Anvar Turaev that created number of significant works for Tajik Soviet cinema. Some of them continue to work in the Post-Soviet period. The third generation presents filmmakers like Bakhtiyar Khudoijnazarov, Djamshed Usmonov, Orzu Sharipov, Safarbek Soliev, Gulbahor Mirzoeva who also continue to make films. As it was mentioned above Russian filmmakers used to be sent to Tajikfilm studio for certain productions to supervise scripts, read lectures on filmmaking, train local technicians, who didn’t have access to a professional film education. They used to assist them and learn on practice. Thus in an official Report of  the Director of Stalinabad Film studio (old name for Tajikfilm) is written that there were ‘8 Tajiks  out of 77 people who overall worked on the studio in 1953. By 1958 their number increased: out of 313 people – 63 people were Tajik” [6]. Russian stuff used to participate on all stages of film production. But after the disintegration of USSR and involvement of Tajikistan into a civil war, majority of film professionals started leaving the country for their Motherlands or the countries they could get chance to work in. The filmmakers that didn’t leave the country survived the war, trying  to build a new building of Tajik cinema in a critically difficult situation, but their attempts remain single and don’t create a movement, that could become a Renaissance. The filmmakers that work outside of Tajikistan are more successful in their attempt.

Certain efforts of rehabilitation and supervision of cinema were done by the Tajik Government in a Tajik Law about cinema that was passed in 2004. The Article #3 of it is dedicated to a Category of a National film: The film can be considered to be National if ‘its content and theme reflects most important principles of development of Tajik culture, its national characteristics and traditions; the producer of the film is a citizen of Republic of Tajikistan or a juridical person, including a foreign one, that is registered in Republic of Tajikistan; not less than 50% of the film production budget, distribution and demonstration of the film is done by film organizations of Republic of Tajikistan; main creators of the film (screenplaywriter, director, cinematographer, composer, production designer) are citizens of Republic of Tajikistan or people having double citizenship, physical personalities leaving in Republic of Tajikistan, registered juridical personalities…Film has to be dubbed on Tajik language [7].

Films that were shot in Tajikistan, including coproduction projects, explore themes like an effect of Civil war in Tajikistan, labor migration and criminal dominance, being mostly of social drama genre. The most acclaimed films of Post-Soviet period include such films as mentioned ‘Kosh ba Kosh’ by Bakhtiyar Khudoynazarov, ‘Prisutstvie’ (Presence) by Tolib Khamidov, selected for a Berlin Film festival Forum in 1996 and Rotterdam Film festival in main program in 1997, ‘Parvozi zanbur’ (Flight of a bee, 1998) and ‘Farishtai kifti rost’ (Angel on the right, 2002) by Djamshed Usmonov. There are significant films that were produced within Tajikistan for the past 10 years like ‘Istiniy polden’ (True noon, 2009) by Nosir Saidov, ‘Mujassamai Ishq’ (Statue of Love, 2003) by Umed Mirzoshirinov,  Ovora (‘Wanderer’, 2005) by Gulandom Muhabatova and Daler Rakhmatov, ‘Taquimi Intizori’ (‘Calendar of expectations’, 2005) by Safarbek Soliev and etc.

Kazakh film critic Gulnara Abikeyeva noticed a tendency in Post-Soviet Central Asian films like absence of heroes-males, instead of whom old age men-aksakals become family and house supporters, who can be called as ‘Fathers of nation’. They were incarnations of strength and wisdom of people, their ‘pillars’. Unfortunately, there are almost no films in Central Asian cinema of this particular period, where happy families are portrayed. Mainly we deal with the films with incomplete family or a family, whose members are forcefully separated from each other, with families with a tragic fate; and only the positive image is a complete, but artificially formed family. As a result most of the children in films grow without fathers. They are brought up by mothers and grandmothers. In this case the image of an unhappy, disjoined and disintegrated family – statement of symptoms of the disease of the society [8].

The image of an absent father can be associated with the lost identity of former Soviet Republics. It happens as a result of identity crisis that takes place in a society undergoing radical transition from one stage to another, when old identities get lost and the new ones have not been created [9].

The self-determination of each Central Asian State is different.  According to modern scholars, there are four competing identity alternatives: first, Western identity through membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as part of it falls in Europe, or the European-Western identity adopted by virtue of joining the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); second, ethnically defined identity broadly corresponding to the dominant ethnic group within its boundaries like Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz; third, extended identity through ethno-cultural and linguistic connections like Turkic or Iranian or cultural historical linkages with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China or other neighboring areas; and fourth, Islamic linkages with a world of Islam at large [10].

There are opinions in film critic circle about trends of further development of Tajik cinema that not only belongs to Iranian civilization, but also to Central Asian and Post-Soviet cultural spaces. The development of Tajik cinema and culture overall depends on the identity that will dominate: it will be either Postsoviet, Iranian, Transasian or Indianized cinema.

The attempt to reunite filmmakers of former Soviet Republics was done by organizing annual Forum of National Cinemas in ‘Belie stolbi’ (‘White poles’) near Moscow. Renowned filmmakers from around countries of CIS and Baltic used to conduct round table discussions and seminars about the ways to overcome the crisis in cinemas that took place after the disintegration of USSR and managing the filmprocess. Not only recent works of film masters were shown during Forum, but also the films of young generation of filmmakers – the beginners. Taking into attention one of the main problems for young filmmakers as absence of opportunity to study in a Film Institute, organizers of Forum in 2007 took an initiative to conduct workshops on four streams for four young filmmakers from each of former Soviet Republic during the main program of Forum: on Direction, Scriptwriting, Production, Film criticism. From 2008 the mentioned workshops turned into a short course Filmschool of countries of CIS and Baltic, where some of young filmmakers of Central Asian countries took their inputs by professionals that used to teach in VGIK.  Unfortunately the Forum of National Cinemas stopped taking its place in 2011 and 2012.

Iranian influence on Tajik cinema can be traced from the time of appearance of renowned Iranian filmmaker Mokhsen Makhmalbaf in Tajikistan, who stood in opposition to present Government of Iran and had to leave the country. Mokhsen Makhmalbaf, presently based in France, shot two films in Tajikistan: ‘Sukut’ (Silence, 1998 ) and ‘Sex and Philosophy’ (2005). Makhmalbaf used to conduct workshops for Tajik students in a small Filmschool organized in ‘Kinoservise’ production house in Dushanbe. Some of the Tajik filmmakers used to assist him and the Tajik artists took part in his films. The bounds between Tajik and Iranian filmmakers became tighter with passing of time. Works of Iranian and Afghani filmmakers are always in the program of Didor International Film Festival taking place once in two years in Tajikistan. There are Iranian professionals: documentary directors and editors, who shifted from Iran to Tajikistan to shoot their projects in there because they get more creative freedom, than in Iran. Similar situation is with Afghani filmmakers also speaking ‘dari’. The Encyclopedia of Tajik Cinema that was published in 2012 in Dushanbe was divided into three parts: History of Tajik Cinema and its personalities and short history of Iranian and Afgani Cinema. The influence of Iranian world in present day Tajik culture seems to be strong.

Western influence in Tajik cinema can be seen from the range of topics that dominate.  First, Tajik cinema doesn’t get commercial release and is oriented on the small screen of International Film Festivals whose focus also keeps changing every year. Second, the producers of so called art documentaries, short and feature films are International Foundations (European and American) that accredited in Central Asia. To compete in getting grants the filmmakers have to revolve their stories around relevant issues of the region. It’s a market demand trend.

For example, when the film ‘Angel on the right’ participated in a main competition of Kinoshok Film Festival in Anapa  (South Russia), the head of the jury writer Viktor Erofeev gave his two voices (that he owned by the status) to the Tajik film, explaining his position by geo-cultural consideration.  Thus ‘Angel on the right’ won in the main competition. International film screenings can be called as Vanity fairs and ambitions not the filmmakers-creators, but mostly the states-participants [11].

Bollywood influence in Tajik films can be seen, first, in their musicality, and second, in the melodramatic collisions on the story. For example, there is a scene in the Tajik film ‘True noon’, where two lovers are separated by a boarder that divided former Soviet Republics. They meet every day in long musical montages and walk along the barbwire trying to hold each other hands. It’s seen in the sensitivity and lyricism of the scene, the discourse into a world of their emotional experience that makes the cinematic time unnoticeably compressed. The example of an influence of Indian parallel cinema is noticeable in the film ‘Flight of a bee’. It was highly inspired by master of Indian cinema Satyajit Ray. The director Djamshed Usmonov dedicated him ‘Flight of a bee’ in the opening title and had used a music composed by Indian master as a background score.

Noteworthy the term used by Kazakh film critic Gulnara Abikeyeva about new generation of young filmmakers of Central Asia. She calls them ‘Children of Independence because they’re 25 to 27 years old and they really don’t remember what the Soviet Union was. What I want to say about Children of Independence is they’re not afraid. They’re sure they can do it. They’re not afraid to shoot without money and without any large sponsor. They don’t fear official censorship because they understand that if it won’t be shown in the cinema, it will be shown somewhere abroad in festivals. And I think the Children of Independence are first, very educated; second, talented like any generation; and third, fearless’ [12].

Young Central Asian filmmakers are indeed trying hard to get a professional education not only within their home country, but to join VGIK in Moscow, London Film school, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), participate in a number of film programs like Cannes Residence, Asian Film Academy in Korea and etc. There was a discussion as part of a ‘round table’ during V-th Didor Film Festival about a form Central Asian cinema takes now. Russian film critic Sergei Anashkin took an example of the young filmmakers, studying outside of their home countries and presented their first works at the festival. After spending 3-5 years of study in a different environment and culture, getting inputs from foreign filmmakers, experiencing an influence of different type of cinema, it’s natural that their works fall under influence of a different filmmaking style. And that’s a question whether this cinema still to be Tajik or Kyrgyz or Kazakh and can be called so. One of the presented Iranian journalists and critics pointed out that every new generation destined to deny whatever was created by their predecessors.

Summarizing the abovementioned, Post-Soviet Tajik cinema is in transition influenced by geo-political motives of countries interested in the region. The Tajik cinema promotes certain ideas, that are screened within the country mainly on TV channels, forming the outlook and values of ordinary people, and outside of the country on the film festivals, forming the image of Tajikistan on the international arena. Soviet in past, with more deeply rooted pre -Islamic Iranian elements that are shown today in the tight contacts with Iranian and Afghani cinema, and Muslim culture overall that monitors the range of topics, based on the traditional values, Tajik cinema from 1991 onwards is in search of its own path.



[1] Dönmez-Colin, Gönül. Central Asia: Redefining its cultural roots// http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=138&feature

[2] Doraiswamy, Rashmi. Soul in Flight (Interview with Bakhtier Khudoijnazarov)// Cinemaya. – Delhi, #46/1999, p.17

[3] Doraiswamy, Rashmi. Op. cit. p.18

[4] Young, Deborah. Waiting for the sea: Rome film review // http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/waiting-sea-rome-film-review-388048

[5] Onishenko, Denis. The film with Egor Beroev as lead is shot in Mangistau// http://aktau-news.kz/?p=1633

[6] Report of the director of Stalinabad Film studio ‘Tajikfilm’ to CC KP of Tajikistan about activity during 1953-1958 from December, 2, 1959// Out of culture building of Tajikistan. Vol.2. – Dushanbe: Irfon, 1972. – p.397

[7] Akhbori Madjlisi Oli of Republic of Tajikistan, 2004, #12, part-1, a. 694; 2007 #5, a. 372

[8] Abikeyeva, Gulnara, Nationbuilding in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries and the way how this process reflects in cinema. – Almati: Center for Central Asian cinema, 2006 – p.97

[9] Ruzalieva, Zaynura. In search of  Identity: History, Religion and Ethnicity in Central Asia//Emerging Asia in Focus: Issues and Problems. Academic Excellence. – Delhi. Ed.1, 2008, – p.490

[10] Ruzalieva, Zaynura. Op. cit. p.491

[11] Bogomolov, Yuriy. Kinoshok -2003 //Izvestia. -2003- September,17 http://izvestia.ru/news/281387

[12] Frye, Barbara. Warriors, Lovers, Immigrants, and Forest Creatures (interview with Gulnara Abikeyeva)// http://www.tol.org/client/article/23366-cinema-central-asia-film.html

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